On any given day at the Attic Youth Center, you’ll find a bunch of young adults sprawled out on couches and chairs, relaxing after school. Notably, they’re not glued to their phones. That’s partly because house rules say they’re not allowed — but also partly because they’re fully engaged with one another, chatting, making crafts, playing card games and joking about what’s playing in the background on TV.
This portion of the afternoon, AYC Director of Development Alyssa Mutryn told Billy Penn, is called the “drop-in period.” And in 25 years of hosting these drop-in sessions, she said, not much has changed.
Except that compared to 41 members when it started, the organization now caters to at least 1,000 LGBTQ youth in Philadelphia each year.
The Attic Youth Center is headquartered in a modestly spacious four-story rowhome on 16th Street just off Spruce — also a far cry from the kind of space where it started: tucked inside a cramped attic whose owners didn’t even believe in the cause.
Shara Dae Howard, a KYW Newsradio editor and reporter who is an alum of those early years, recalled how she’d have to duck in the room to avoid bumping her head. But once situated, she got comfortable. She’d sit, cross-legged and “pour [her] heart out” to peers in the discussion circle.
On AYC’s silver anniversary, which will be celebrated by way of a swanky gala at the Crystal Tea Room on Nov. 3, executive director and founder Dr. Carrie Jacobs is eager to reminisce on how far the organization has come — and how much further she fantasizes it will go.
A battle against invisibility
Back in 1993, conventional wisdom held that LGBTQ youth didn’t exist, Jacobs explained.
That was the belief even of so-called progressive organizations and academic institutions, she said. People presumed it to be fact because most folks didn’t come out publicly until they were at least in their 20s. Jacobs wasn’t buying it.
While working as a graduate student intern at Union College, Jacobs and a classmate scoured Philly for some kind of LGBTQ meetup, but came up empty. So they decided to start their own.
They rang up Voyage House, a now-defunct local service organization, to see if it would provide a location to pilot their new after-school support group. Although leaders at the organization were skeptical such a thing as gay youth actually existed, per Jacobs, they begrudgingly agreed to allow the students to use the crawl space beneath the roof for an eight-week period.
Marketing was strictly via word of mouth, as Jacobs and her mates tried to balance keeping people safe from violence incited by anti-LGBTQ hate (still widespread in the ‘90s) and getting the word out about their novel concept. But it didn’t take much effort to get people to come.
“In those eight weeks these kids would walk up those four or five flights of stairs to get in this little space and look so relieved and so at peace because they realized that they weren’t alone,” Jacobs said. “It was their lifeline. I was blown away.”
She decided they had to find a way to continue once those initial eight weeks were up, but getting funding to flourish their mission proved to be challenging.
“I went to the board of directors at Voyage House and asked for funding, but they said they couldn’t support us,” Jacobs said, although they did give ACY leave to use the attic space for as long as they wanted.
“So, I was like, alright, I guess we only need snacks and SEPTA tokens…”
Tokens, but also acceptance
The SEPTA tokens were in fact important. Howard, the KYW editor, recalls them as being one of the things she was grateful for after her parents kicked her out, along with resources to find housing and career advice.
“From the ages of 14 to about 19 years old, I relied heavily on the Attic,” Howard said. “I was just beginning high school…and I started realizing that I was gay. But I had no family or friends who knew, so now I had this place which accepted me for being me.”
As a gay woman of color, AYC provided her with the courage and confidence to not apologize for anything and to grab whatever opportunities came her way.
“The Attic toughened my skin,” she said. “Carrie always taught us that we should never shrink away from who we are.”
Eventually it dawned on Jacobs that she needed more than food and transit passes to keep the organization thriving — such as money to pay staff. Her co-founder had left, so she enlisted other youth as co-facilitators, and via twice-weekly meetings, the group of young folks hatched a plan for the future.
It was impossible to get funding for LGBTQ youth at that time, per Jacobs, because the straight community didn’t want to support kids being gay. Meanwhile, the adult gay community was dealing with the HIV epidemic, so many resources were addressing that. There was also the issue of appearances, Jacobs said: the older gay community didn’t want to get accused of “recruiting.”
“I had a foundation write me a letter and ask me, ‘How do I know if I give you money that you won’t make kids gay?” she said.
Slowly, toward the end of the decade, foundations began to open up.
The Attic Youth Center was able to incorporate in 2000 and get an official 501(c)(3), which allowed it to part ways with the Voyage House. Then an anonymous donor provided Jacobs with enough money to purchase the organization’s current headquarters. And it was onward from there.
A dream of doing more
To this day, AYC is one of the only independent organizations in the country that specifically serves LGBTQ youth.
Since its days in the attic, the organization has experienced tremendous growth in programming. It now offers a plethora of services, including after-school activities, themed groups like “Media Queery” and “Allied Gaymers Force,” mental health counseling, leadership retreats, a safer sex support group and life coaching.
But Jacobs wants to do more.
“The City of Philadelphia has taken incredible strides in taking care of and supporting the LGBTQ community. I have watched that change over time,” she said. “But the tricky part is [the] homophobia, transphobia and biphobia that are embedded in our juvenile justice system, in our school district and in our housing.”
Jacobs’ real fantasy, she said, is that the Attic Youth Center grows large and successful enough to provide emergency and transitional housing, staff a whole mental health center and host expanded educational support services.
If past performance is any indication of the future, her dream may well become reality.